Bhagwan sect's legacy puts justice on trial: Phil Reeves reports from Oregon, the state which is trying to extradite two British women

PERRY SWANSON sat in the afternoon sunshine, and drew on his cigarette as he pondered the question. Could he give a Rajneeshee a fair trial? 'Nope,' he concluded, 'I think I have already formed my opinion in the case. Guilty.'

Like many of the 2.9 million Americans in the north-western state of Oregon, Mr Swanson, a 41- year-old shop manager, remembers the exploits of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers as if they happened yesterday.

He recalls how thousands of members of the religious sect, wearing orange and saffron robes, took over a remote 66,000-acre ranch in central Oregon, seized control of the hamlet of Antelope, and established the City of Rajneesh, with its own machinegun-toting private police force.

He described how the Bhagwan's supporters, intelligent and often well-qualified people called 'sannyasins', used salmonella bacteria to poison 750 people in restaurants in The Dalles, the administrative headquarters of Wasco County, in an effort to manipulate local election results.

But most importantly, he remembers that the sect plotted to murder US Attorney Charles Turner, Oregon's top federal prosecutor, who was leading an investigation into their hundreds of sham marriages. 'I thought that (the plot) was over the line,' he said. 'It was wrong. The people who did it should be brought to trial.'

Two British women who were former sect members, Sally Croft, 44, a City of London accountant, and Susan Hagan, 47, an aromatherapist, are fighting the Government's decision to return them to the US, where they are accused of being part of the assassination conspiracy. Twelve days ago they were granted leave to challenge their extradition, but the decision came so close to deadline that their bags were already packed for the US. Their fate is unlikely to be known until next month.

Technically, Mr Swanson - and others who share his view - could be asked to sit on a jury in their case, posing a critical question: if the women lose their extradition battle, and are flown back to Oregon, will they receive a fair trial?

Nearly nine years have elapsed since the collapse of the cult run by the grey-bearded millionaire Bhagwan, who died in India in 1990, but it has left an indelible mark in the state's collective memory.

Between 1981 and 1985, local newspapers published more than 4,000 stories about the Bhagwan and his entourage. Although local papers are more used to printing details of logging disputes, and the well-being of the spotted owl, the tally is hardly surprising, given the cult's exotic activities.

Among other things, the sect was responsible for the biggest illegal telephone tapping operation in US history (allegedly masterminded by a Briton), an arson attack on a county office, and the purchase of 91 Rolls-Royces for the guru's use. A Rajneeshee woman has even admitted attempting to murder the Bhagwan's doctor, a British-born eccentric called George Alexander Stowell Wynne- Aubrey Meredith, by forcibly injecting him with poison.

In 1985, a University of Oregon survey concluded that hostility towards members of the sect was so overwhelming that Rajneeshees were unlikely to receive a fair trial in the state. 'Even in the face of evidence to the contrary, the vast majority of Oregonians would believe any Rajneeshee to be an abuser of the law,' it stated. 'Most Oregonians find them sinister.'

The current question is whether such sentiments still prevail, and whether it is possible to find a jury of Oregonians who can set them aside. Metropolitan areas, especially Portland, are predominantly Democratic and liberally-inclined, while the rural areas are generally Republican, religious, and intensely conservative. But no one likes outsiders who ride roughshod over their communities, as the Bhagwan and his troupe did.

Although many residents have been exposed to saturation news coverage about the Rajneeshees, Oregon's present US Attorney, Baron Sheldahl, believes impartial jurors can be chosen. Federal laws allow a defendant's lawyer to exclude up to 10 panellists without supplying a reason. An unlimited number can be excluded if they demonstrate open bias during pre- trial questioning.

US prosecutors are in no doubt that there was a plot to kill Mr Turner. Three Rajneeshees have been jailed after admitting being involved. But they have yet to prove that the two British women took part. Both held senior positions and were close to Anand Sheela, the sect's day-to-day leader, and the Bhagwan's dangerous and manipulative personal secretary who served two and a half years in jail for crimes ranging from attempted murder to telephone tapping. Ms Croft was the movement's chief financial adviser, and managing director of Rajneesh Services International Ltd, its London- based financial arm. Ms Hagan headed the Rajneesh Investment Corporation, its property company whose dollars 31m ( pounds 21m) assets included three 'Air Rajneesh' aircraft.

US Department of Justice lawyers refuse to disclose the nature of their evidence against the two or how far the alleged plot had progressed. But it includes statements from four former Rajneeshees who struck deals with prosecutors under which they agreed to testify in return for lenient treatment. None was jailed for more than two years.

Affidavits which the FBI assembled to support extradition requests involving other Rajneeshees also contain a striking inconsistency. One says that the assassination team allegedly assembled to carry out the murder included Ms Hagan. Another lists five names, but does not include her.

Mr Turner says his ordeal still haunts him. 'I'd like to tell you it didn't bother me, but it did bother me. And it bothers me every single day because I think about it. I never drive down my gravel road without thinking about the fact that at the end of the road that one time they planned to use that spot to kill me.'

He believes it is essential to air the issue in a US court. He sees the publicity campaign being waged in Britain on the women's behalf as 'rude and unprofessional'. Above all, he is dismissive of suggestions that the trial should be moved to appease fears about the bias of an Oregon jury. 'Are we going to let a foreign nation dictate our criminal justice system? I would rather dismiss the case.'

(Photographs omitted)

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